Those of you who have read “Awake Again, all the way back from head injury”, or especially those who tune into BikeRoute.com to see what kind of progress I am making with the National Bicycle Greenway (NBG), surely wonder why I expend so much of my energy on recumbent bicycles. Well, the answer is not a simple one. So I will use the words ahead to explain why I feel recumbent bicycles are so important to making the NBG real..
First, a tiny bit of background. Once I moved beyond the effects of clinical death and a two month coma that included paralysis, spasticity, a punctured lung which made the deep breathing of exercise difficult and a host of other debilitations to then pedal across the country the first time, I began to sense there was nothing I could not achieve. If I was patient; if I could mark time.
However, my upright bicycle ride had so compromised my neck, wrist and back, the only kind of cycling I could do was on a three-speed bike. In the first several years that followed my first bike ride across the USA, I didn’t go very far. Until I discovered the recumbent bicycle. Nor did it matter that ski poles held a back back frame in place to give me a seat. I could ride again!! Without pain or discomfort!!
To prove the ‘I had no limits if I could mark time’ idea to myself, seven year later I felt called to do another bike ride across America. I would use it to educate people about the severity of brain trauma. On that ride which took place in 1986, I reached 40 million people for the National Head Injury Foundation. And because I rode a recumbent bicycle, many parts of it were like a magic carpet ride beyond compare.
Satisfied that marking time was the key to making big things happen, I began to ask myself why a person could not get on a bike each day and ride until he or she got tired. Until they had ridden like I had from one coast to the other. Why did there have to be the constant threat of cars and trucks and buses?
Why couldn’t those who had been away from cycling use parts of such a bikeway to sharpen up their skills? For that matter, why was so much gear needed for a long distance bike ride? Could not a system be set up where a lot of the services such bicyclists need could be bought, borrowed or rented along the way?
The questions were continuous. Even in the case of rehabilitation, or for that matter, exercise, I asked myself why cycling had to be done indoors on an exercise bike, usually a recumbent exercise bike, no less? What could I do? Why could I not use what I had learned about marking time to heal not just myself but people everywhere?
It was then, as I neared the end of the car-free bike paths on Cape Cod on my 1986 TransAmerica ride, that a seed had been planted. Why could we not connect the coasts with a bikeway? In the parts of our route that passed through cities, why could we not create a network of interconnected neighborhood greenways, protected bike lanes, bike boulevards as they also interlaced with existing pathways? Between population centers developing a spec for such roads and trails for safe bike travel would also be readily doable.
Since I knew this could be made real, I resolved to use the rest of my life to push for a path not as simplistic as the Cape Cod Trail. But one that a person could cycle on all the way across the USA. It was then that I knew a coast-to-coast bicycle highway would make for a heather America on many levels..
But I also knew I needed a calling card. I needed the credibility of my story. I had to get it out there.
When after 16 years, “Awake Again, all the Way Back from Head Injury” finally got published, I had burned the bridges of retreat when I dedicated it and the book’s epilogue to the National Bicycle Greenway. When it then dawned on me that I could use the all new internet and the authority my book had given me to get recumbent bicycles more widely known about, I made them a part of the NBG crusade too.
In the 7 years after my second ride, I had already been using my own small book publishing company, the Cycle America Regional Directories, to broadcast the NBG vision as far and as wide as I pre-interred could. And I had been able to garner advertising support from the recumbent manufacturers that were springing up in garages all over America. As disheartening as it was to me, however, my book was of no interest to the makers of diamond frame upright bicycles. They were were only interested in bike racing celebrities such as Lance Armstrong.
So when the internet was born a year after “Awake Again” came out I learned HTML at a time when most people had no idea what a web page was. I used my expertise to build scores and scores of the first web pages for not only the recumbent makers and sellers who had supported the NBG but the ones that were popping up everywhere. My Santa Cruz, CA apartment was filled with bents I had reviewed or was set to review. I even took possession of a couple lines of bent bike liness that I was paid commission to sell.
I was like a bent bicycle rock star. I gave countless test rides. My pockets were lined with the appreciation people felt for what I had to offer. It was like a new gold rush.
A new age in bicycling seemed to be right around the corner. Then in 2001, the Twin Towers came down. We as a people were thrown into survival mode. The open arms, heart chakra sentiment that symbolizes the recumbent way turned to distrust as our leaders taught us to be on guard for the terrorists living amongst us. The Patriot Act greatly curtailed our freedoms. Keep your head down became the new mantra that seemed to govern our lives. We stopped having fun.
When business as usual came to a stand still all over the world after the attacks, the economy had a hard time kicking back into gear. It softened. And as it did, so did the sales of recumbent bikes. In 2002, high flying BikeE the most admired and emulated of the recumbent purveyors started missing the aggressive benchmarks their investors had set when they were soaring. People at the top were fired. The company’s management went into in a state of flux. By 2004 they were closed.
ATP Vision, another leader and top seller of recumbents, followed BikeE into bankruptcy. An industry shakeout ensued in which no clear leader filled the hole left by BikeE and Vision. More and more, production shifted to the Pacific Rim. It was not long before the worldwide financial collapse of 2008 removed the discretionary dollars consumers thought they needed to justify the purchases of a recumbent from the American pocketbook.
The glory days of the recumbent bicycle were put in a tailspin saved only by the three-wheeled movement that is now in sync with the times. It is the newly retired or underemployed Baby Boomers of our present day world who are bringing bents back with their check books. As these older Americans get back on a bike, usually in the form of a trike which also addresses some of the balance issues that come with age, these are the people who are going to help make the National Bicycle Greenway real.
For them, how much of a two-wheel minimalist they can be or how fast they can climb a hill pales in comparison to comfort. And it will be this group of people who will demand safe infrastructure for their two or three wheeled efforts. If trikes are the mode of conveyance more and more of them choose, everyone wins because of the wider wheelbases our roads and paths will soon have to accommodate.
The Baby Boomers are a generation made up of people who have held top roles in management and in the government sector. And even if they worked in average jobs, there are many who still also hold a worthy measure of influence over high level decision makers. It is their voices and letters, for example, that will hold the greatest weight when resolutions are being considered or bond measures are being drawn up that can build or improve the bicycle infrastructure that will meet our needs.
And unlike a majority of people under 30, older Americans also vote. They also take an active interest in local politics, the forum where decisions about bicycle thoroughfares are often made. Instead of trying to make a mark, to be the best at something, the Baby Boomers of this world have all pretty much reached the point in their lives where the legacy they leave behind is important to them. They want to plant a shade tree under which others can sit; that they may never get to enjoy.
How they made it easier for the next guy that comes along guides their actions and not who they beat at what or how they have more or better than their colleague or neighbor up the street. While the greatest predominance of cyclists are under 30 and the sub-30 thinking of this world may win races and certainly cause such a person to excel, it does not build bike ways that the youth or older Americans can feel safe on.
Besides attracting older Americans and the influence and money power they wield, recumbents make it OK to smile and to go as fast or as slow as you want to when your are on a bike. What warms my heart about recumbent cyclists is that their cycling does not always have to be serious. They do not have to be on a Lance Armstrong “training ride” wearing heart and/or power curve monitors, etc. Their rides are about the journey itself and not what can be said about how much speed you were able to develop on the way to the destination.
Smiling at people on sidewalks and waving at cars is OK on a recumbent. And special clothes are not necessary. When car drivers see the true nature of most cyclists in this way, it is easier for them to see themselves on a bike. While genuine bike racing and the training rides associated with it do require focus, concentration and and skill, this a a very small percentage of how people use their bikes in the real world.
However, when the Average Joe puts on his racing helmet (which is about all you can buy any more), slips into his or her lycra and puts on bike cleats and bike gloves, a new code of conduct begins to prevail. They feel compelled to make themselves worthy of the uniform. They want to go fast.
An inner voice asks them to look at their bike racing role models. When Mr Armstrong was the bicycle king, the world saw him everywhere. And cyclists and non-cyclists alike only saw him smile when he was on the winner’s podium. And yet even though he is shamed and gone, he seems to have left behind a bike racing culture that has become synonymous with a stern. non-smiling way of moving about on a pedal machine.
People forget that the only true winner of the Tour de France, and the man who launched Americas’s love affair with the bicycle in the 1980s, Greg Lemond, was always smiling. People flocked to bicycling in great numbers after he came back from shotgun wounds in 1986 on the last day of the Tour de France to win in dramatic fashion at the Arc de Triomph in Paris. France.
All forms of cycling benefited. Great numbers turned to touring bikes. The mountain bike which had been invented just a few years before, became a craze far more popular than the road bikes the racers of the late 1980’s were using.
Just as Lemond began to settled into his newfound fame, a brash Texan, name Lance Armstrong was busy establishing himself as an athletic force to be reckoned with. This as he also soon began mowing down anyone who he perceived as a threat.
It wasn’t long before Lance, had managed to push Lemond off center stage as he crowned himself the new American Bicycle King. Road bikes became a hot commodity as their sales went off the charts. Middle aged men all over America, looked up to their new hero as racing became their new golf. Soon, many of the Americans who were running the country were saying to themselves and the youth who followed their lead that bikes are about how fast you can go.
But now that the Lance fantasy no longer pre-dominates the news, do we all still need to go fast on a bike? All the time? Can’t bikes be fun – while we are riding them?
While recumbents can be made to run a whole lot faster than conventional upright bikes, most of the people who ride them do not build them out that way. They are not interested in speed. They want a machine that is pragmatic as well as comfortable. They wear comfortable, loose fitting clothes. Even kick stands are acceptable on recumbent bikes!
When more of them get built, production costs will come down. And when they do, more people will be able to buy them. And it will be when people with less financial resources can afford one and used recumbents start becoming widely available, then larger and larger numbers of Americans of all ages, abilities and riding styles will Get Bent! All this as the bike pioneers before them, the Baby Boomers of this day in age, get the National Bicycle Greenway built!!
As a side note, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the recumbent bicycle. Not only did it rehabilitate my body and transport me and a bike trailer across the USA, but my four decades of riding them have also kept me young. The falls all of us are prone to take on a bicycle have not, because I am closer to the ground and the first point of impact is not my head, left me with serious injuries. Nor have my ulnar nerve, genitalia or neck and back been compromised.
This is borne out by the fact that I can ride a HiWheel bike with efficacy. And not just any HiWheel but the backwards facing Eagle HiWheel that very few people can ride because of the fitness level that is required. I had the good fortune of learning how to ride it so I could pedal it, and not walk, over mountain ranges on a ride I may still yet do all the way across America And as such, on my 2009 Eagle ride from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, I pedaled over the Sierras and all the way across the most mountainous state in the Union, Nevada.
And it is here that the HiWheel is yet another tool I use to bring attention to the NBG. Seen as a machine that confers authority on me as a cyclist, I ride it as a way to bring all cyclists under the one main National Bicycle Greenway umbrella.
If you also want see what recumbents have to do with HiWheel cycling, go HERE.